Exploring Writing Skills

Writing is a large part of a humanities class. For my government class I specialize in informational and argumentative writing. Most social studies classes in America place a heavy emphasis on this type of reading and writing because our English classes cover most other forms. 

Practicing these skills is not always, or lets say never, a students favorite activity. Writing can be incredibly tough on students because it is viewed as a Herculean task. They write HUGE essays, the skills are isolated to only writing days, or large grades bring fear and anxiety. Bringing these skills into fun class activities and removing the stigma of informational and argumentative  writing has been my goal for years. 

Current Events Brings Analysis to Life

Through engaging activities students interact with primary and secondary sources. They learn from modified AP materials how to analyze documents for context, audience, purpose and audience. We have organized this chart to help students analyze documents.

Most teachers use this for purely analyzing historical documents, but in a civics classroom students use it in their weekly current events writing as well. Students must find reliable and verifiable news articles about news from America and the world to discuss in class. The first step is to use the chart to explore the article. Most American news is heavily biased and recognizing bias has been the students first lesson in analysis. Context, audience and purpose also helps students round out the information they are getting and broadens their base knowledge of what is happening in America and the world. This takes the task analyzing primary and secondary documents and brings it into their world. No longer is this a “history” skill, but a skill necessary in evaluating information in our world.

Within the first few weeks of doing current events students start to recognize why knowing the context of a document is necessary, how bias of the author can change the message of the article and how the implied message can spin the facts. It is important for students to learn history and the tools to understand it, but recognizing that they are living history and they need to evaluate it in real time gives their work and this skill set purpose that sparks enthusiasm. 

Argumentative Writing Made Fun

Most state standards hold history teachers to a document based question essay where students analyze up to 8 primary and secondary sources and then use the information gathered from them to answer a writing prompt. Finding relevant evidence and offering convincing explanations and arguments are overriding skills that are practiced in almost every lesson. These skills can not be fostered or fine tuned by writing an essay once in a while, but by practicing a little bit every day. 

    Almost every piece of writing and class discussion emphasize and practice these skills. Pick a point of view, gather evidence, explain and argue your case. Students are prompted in mini-writing assignments that are sometimes only a paragraph long. For this type of practice take one document and frame a prompt around it. This is an example from our Road to Revolution Unit. It offers insight into the unit, a different point of view and time for students to practice their argumentative writing with the pressure of the long essay or a huge grade. 

     The substance isn’t always the important part, practicing the skill is. One of my favorite days when I take the class on a trip through time to the 1980’s to watch music videos. My favorite writing prompt is the Depeche Mode video for “Enjoy the Silence”. In the video the band travels around dressed as a king with a lawn chair. He sets the chair down occasionally and stares off into the distance. 

The writing prompt is “Where is he going and why?” 

The kids are hysterical at what music videos were like in the beginning of MTV, and the idea of figuring out this ancient mystery really pull them in. The point of the exercise is to practice those basic social studies skills. Pick a point of view, find evidence, explain it and argue your point. As long as students practice those skills they can take the music video in any direction they want. Some years this is more successful than others. Some classes love it so much they nominate their own music videos to use as writing prompts. The idea of writing and practicing skills takes off into unimaginable giggles and fun. 

Accountable Talk Changes the Conversation

These skills are not just practiced through writing. Accountable talk holds students to practice their writing skills when they speak in class. The idea is that if students get used to providing evidence, explanation and argument when speaking they will automatically use those skills when writing. In distance learning this has been hard to enforce since conversation can be so stilted. Luckily, with the implementation of Eduscrum there are not many large group discussions. Students pace out their own projects and end up working through the unit at different paces. This allows much more small group interaction and closer conversations. I find that I know more about my students and their level of understanding now that I can meet with them in groups of 3 instead of 20. I am able to structure the conversation closely and ensure that students are practicing the skills that we are working on. It only takes a few conversations for students to automatically begin to adapt this style of speaking and practicing themselves when I am not around.

   When large group discussions are necessary an exciting prompt pulls in even my shyest students to make a proclamation from the back corners of zoom. When the conversation gets exciting voices from all over call out to the class and as students speak up I leave the conversation. When they realize they can guide the conversation without me they banter back and forth as if they are all in the same room, almost normal for 2021. 

Reflections drive Metacognition

One of the backbones of implementing Eduscrum and agile into the classroom is the reflection. Students start every class with a stand up meeting and end every sprint with a retrospective. What I truly love about these exercises is that it helps students build metacognition from a young age. Students are taught to think about what they are doing, how they are doing it, and asked to evaluate themselves. In our current education system students are usually told what to do and then told why is it good or bad. No one ever stops to ask them. 

   The stand up meetings and retrospectives are some of my favorite conversations to listen into because they are so honest. The students just start to speak and end up finding real insight. To push this exercise a little further I have them write a sprint retrospective in their reflection journals as well. While it is wonderful exercise to reflect on the actions of the group it is also important to really dive deep into your actions as an individual and how you affected the group. In the beginning of the year students created their own google site to serve as this space. Every once in a while reflection questions are posted and all students will have to write in their reflection space. This is done when the class needs a boost, at the end of a sprint, the end of the quarter and usually after school breaks to get us back on task. While this type of writing does not practice the standardized social studies skills it practices a different kind of writing that is necessary for their growth. Putting their thoughts into words on paper makes them concrete. They are able to go and review them later and observe their own growth. It is a reflection portfolio that follows them through the year and tracks their development as an individual and a member of a team. 

    I’m not going to lie and say students jump up and down excited to write their reflections. They do not share the same enthusiasm about reflection writing as they do with current events and music videos. However, they do quietly enjoy it. They share feelings and thoughts in their reflections that they would not share out loud. They get to tell me things that they may otherwise never get to say.

They practice real metacognition that is a life skill that cannot be evaluated by standards or written into state curriculum. These are the life skills that are necessary to develop into a strong critical thinker, a developer, an innovator. While the reflection writing is not the most fun type of writing they do, the students recognize its purpose and love to see their growth on paper.

Deliberate practicing of skills develops rote behavior.

Students are continuously practicing these skills throughout the content. When the time comes to write a five paragraph essay, document based question or research paper they are able to tackle the task. They sit down to gather information and realize they have been practicing all along. Their anxiety subsides and the writing behaviors that we have practiced until they became rote take over. All the while they were mastering content and having fun.

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